SPECIAL REPORT: Tsunami Aftermath, the future of Kona village

Published: Oct. 27, 2011 at 9:35 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 28, 2011 at 4:51 AM HST
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By Brooks Baehr - bio | email

KONA (HawaiiNewsNow) More than seven months ago, a tsunami that struck the Big Island caused millions of dollars in damages and forced hotels and other businesses along the Kona coast to close. The recovery process has been painful for many of those affected by, but a wave of hope is beginning to sweep over many of the areas hit hardest by tsunami.

The Kona Village Resort, ravaged by the tsunami back in March, has been a favorite retreat for the rich and famous for more than 45 years. Now, it's in ruins, victimized like so many other local businesses by the sudden surge of water that poured over the pier on Ali'i Drive in Kailua Kona.

While other hotels, resorts and businesses have managed to reopen, the damage at the Kona Village has been especially difficult to overcome, says Pat Fitzgerald, the hotel's CEO.

"This used to be a site for one of our hales," said Fitzgerald, pointing to an area void of any structure. "Since the tsunami, we had to demolish the building and take it all out."

The resort once had 125 hales, or bungalows, on its property. Sixteen of them were completely destroyed by the tsunami, while another 40 suffered damage.

"It picked up some of these buildings and moved them 30 or 40 yards," said Fitzgerald. "It was substantial as far as you could see how it just lifted them up, moved them against trees and just made those particular units uninhabitable."

Fitzgerald also says that there was significant damage to the hotel's infrastructure, citing problems with everything from water and sewer pipes to electrical conduits.

Damage estimates from the tsunami range from 30 to 50 million dollars, according to hotel management, but the problems hardly stopped there. The resort's closure forced layoffs of more than 200 employees.

Despite the damage, Fitzgerald says there is a still a future for Kona Village. The hotel's owners have decided to rebuild and reopen the resort.

"We're 99.9% sure that we are going to do that," Fitzgerald says. "But we have to first get through this insurance analysis and make sure we understand exactly what needs to be done here."

If everything goes according to plan, the resort could be back in business in late 2013. Fitzgerald says that when the hotel finally does reopen, "It's not going to be something else. It's going to be Kona Village again."

Damage next door at the Four Seasons Hualalai wasn't as bad, but the hotel was still forced to close for seven weeks. Employees at Hualalai were able to hold on to their jobs by assisting with the clean-up efforts, according to Robert Whitfield.

"We had a line of employees from under the buildings right out onto the beach handing buckets of sand down to put the sand back on the beach. And they did that day in and day out," Whitfield said.

Whitfield also believes that the clean-up from the tsunami, disastrous as it was, strengthened the resolve of the hotel's workforce.

"It was just a wonderful thing," Whitfield said. "We're much tighter as a team as a result."

At King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Hotel, the tsunami wreaked havoc, flooding the property's entire first floor and bursting into waterfront shops, sending broken glass, sand and debris everywhere. The hotel's restaurant, which faces the ocean, was hit especially hard, according to Deanna Isbister, the hotel's Director of Sales.

"We had about eight inches of standing water throughout the entire lobby," said Isbister.

All totaled, the King Kamehameha suffered seven million dollars in damage. Repairs to the hotel finished earlier this month, and Isbister says that while the hotel's design has remained the same, it has the feel of a newly constructed building.

"You know, we kept the same look. The art work is back, but everything you see outside of the tile on the floor is completely brand new," Ibister says.

Make sure to tune in on Friday night, when Hawaii News Now will take you back to another Big Island spot hit hard by the March tsunami, Kealakekua Bay, to check in on the clean up and repairs process and let you know what work still needs to be done.


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